MPs tried to set up an independent complaints process into sexual harassment and bullying as far back as 2016, but their efforts were blocked, I have learned.
Anne Milton, who was the Conservative Deputy Chief Whip between 2015 and 2017, told Coffee House that she became increasingly concerned that the political parties' own complaints processes were insufficiently independent, and convened a meeting of whips and Commons clerks to try to get Parliament to set up its own process. She had received a number of complaints from staff who had been bullied by MPs or other employees, and was concerned that there was often no proper recourse for these complainants.
The whips from the main and smaller parties were largely supportive of the idea, accepting that it would be a good thing for Parliament to have its own process. Others involved in the meeting said it had also been motivated by a fear that setting up a better process in the Tory party would be difficult. Two sources claimed that there was reluctance from Labour, which felt it had a perfectly good complaints system in place at the time, while the Conservatives had nothing.
Milton claimed there was also resistance from the then Clerk of the House, Sir David Natzler, particularly with regard to the cost of setting up such a process. 'He was very reluctant,' she said. 'I think they knew it was an issue, but often the way that the House of Commons works is to bury its head in the sand about things it knows it needs to solve.’
Milton said she never heard anything back from the meeting before she was moved from her role as Deputy Chief Whip and into the Education department. She sees those talks as a missed opportunity for Parliament to start to put its house in order over complaints long before the MeToo scandal broke. Following the avalanche of revelations in late 2017, the parties suddenly saw the importance of an independent complaints system, and MPs will next week approve the widening of that scheme to historic complaints. 'I am pleased that now something is being put in place thanks to the work that Andrea Leadsom has done but I was frustrated that this had been suggested so long ago and nothing done about it,’ said Milton.
Natzler disagrees with Milton's version of events, insisting that nothing happened because the parties didn't see the need to set up a process. He said he supported Milton's work and tried to give her resources for a working group on the matter, adding:
'It is quite untrue to suggest that there was resistance on my part. I explained to her that unless the parties agreed then it was unlikely that the Commission would agree to set up and pay for an independent system, I'm afraid her endeavours to reach agreement among the parties failed. Far from being resistant I offered to help.’
Natzler retired at the start of this year, and acknowledged in his resignation letter, which was read out in the Commons by Speaker Bercow, that the Commons had failed to do enough to deal with harassment and bullying. The statement said: 'The last 12 months have also of course seen the surfacing in various ways of the complex issue of bullying and harassment and sexual misconduct in the parliamentary community. I am confident that we can deal with it if we all acknowledge past failings - as I readily do - and move beyond concerns about process to reach a place where, quite simply, everybody in the community treats everybody else with respect and dignity. And where, if they do not, they are called out and if necessary sanctioned.’
The Cox inquiry criticised the House of Commons authorities as being unable to change the culture and procedures in the House, with the report saying that 'the duty of care owed to staff should have prompted much earlier action'. It added: 'The vast majority of people coming forward lay the blame for this failure squarely on the culture that has long been in place in the House and that has governed every aspect of the work carried out there.
'The description of the House as an institution whose "structure and leadership prevent the active resolution of such problems", or as having a "working culture that is out of step with other working cultures and with where society is," and with a "structure of the senior staff that is very dated - there is an aloofness" reflect the general trend of the contributions.
As I wrote yesterday, White was anxious that the House was still dragging its feet on making changes to ensure that inappropriate behaviour is tackled early and quickly. Given the way the parties have reacted to the allegations of the past two years, it's not clear whether they or the Commons authorities have yet learned the necessary lessons that will mean the culture can change any time soon.